UN ignored Rwanda genocide warnings

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

By Norm Dixon

In 1994, the United Nations was warned of the Rwandan Hutu chauvinist government's impending genocide against the Tutsi minority and anti-tribalist Hutus three months before it began in April — yet ordered its "peacekeepers" in the country to do nothing. Almost 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered in the subsequent three months.

The May 11 edition of the New Yorker magazine published details of correspondence between the commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda and the UN's New York headquarters. The documents clearly reveal that Kofi Annan, at the time head of UN peacekeeping operations and currently UN secretary-general, ordered the UN forces not to intervene.

On January 11, the Canadian commander of UN forces in Rwanda, Major General Romeo Dallaire, urgently faxed New York after a government security official had warned that the registration of Kigali's Tutsis was a prelude to "their extermination". The informant reported that the genocide was minutely planned, so much so that government forces and allied Hutu militias had trained so that they were able "in 20 minutes to kill up to 1000 Tutsis".

Dallaire proposed a raid on a weapons stockpile within 36 hours to prevent the arming of Hutu chauvinist militias.

Annan's office replied promptly, ordering Dallaire not to take action and not to protect his informant. Dallaire was ordered to pass the informant's reports on to the Rwandan government and the French, US and Belgian embassies. UN official Iqbal Riza, who signed the order, confirmed to the New Yorker that Annan aware of the response.

Since then, Annan has stepped in to prevent Dallaire testifying before various national inquiries into the genocide. Last year, Annan refused to allow Dallaire to appear before a Belgian hearing because it was not "in the interests of the organisation".

Annan said on May 4: "The failure to prevent the 1994 genocide was local, national, international, including member-states with important capacity".

Annan was referring to the conflicting interests inside the UN Security Council: the French openly backed the genocidal Hutu chauvinists, and eventually intervened to save them after the Rwandan Patriotic Front swept to power and put an end to the slaughter; the US opposed action because just months before in Somalia, 18 US "peacekeepers" were killed while trying to crush opposition to its "humanitarian" intervention in that strategic, potentially oil-rich country. Seeing no strategic value in preventing mass murder in Rwanda, the US preferred to sit on its hands.

On February 10, 1994, the Security Council was briefed about the Hutu chauvinists' preparations for mass murder and chose to do nothing. As the genocide was at its height in April, after 10 Belgian troops were killed by Hutu chauvinist forces, the UN withdrew almost its entire "peacekeeping" force of 2500, leaving just 270.

Recently, on May 7, during the Rwandan leg of an eight-country African tour, Annan sought to justify the UN's actions. Addressing Rwanda's parliament, Annan admitted that "the world failed Rwanda at that time of evil" but concentrated on blaming the massacres on the ethnic divisions in Rwanda society.

Foreign minister Anastase Gasana responded, with Annan seated next to him in parliament, by pointing out that Rwanda's ethnic divisions were fostered by the colonial powers and that the United Nations' predecessor, the League of Nations, was responsible for handing control of Rwanda over to the Belgian colonialists.

Gasana condemned the UN for "harbouring the forces of evil" in refugee camps in eastern Congo from 1994 to 1996, from which the chauvinists planned to relaunch the genocide. An uprising in Congo triggered by the chauvinists' depredations forced the camps to close.

Rwandan leaders denounced Annan's speech as arrogant and insensitive. "He talked of the need for Rwandans to atone, yet he cannot atone for the failure of the UN in Rwanda, which led to the slaughter of Rwandans", a Rwandan presidential spokesperson said.

Rwanda's President Pasteur Bizimungu, Vice-president Paul Kagame and Prime Minister Pierre Celestin Rwigema boycotted an official function organised for Annan to show their displeasure. Annan stayed just 30 minutes before slinking back to his hotel.

On May 8, Annan was taken to site where Rwandans courageously fought chauvinist forces before being massacred.

"The battle lasted for eight days as we waited in vain for the help of the United Nations and Kofi Annan", a spokesperson for the survivors, Charles Butera, said bitterly in the UN chief's presence. "The secretary general wrung his hands and his wife stood beside him, head bowed", reported Reuters correspondent Nicholas Kotch.

"In essence, Annan took a political beating to protect western nations, particularly the United States", observed the New York Times' James C. McKinley, Jr, on May 10.